The Presbyterian Predicament: Six Perspectives
edited by Milton J. Coalter, John M. Mulder, and Louis B. Weeks
Westminster/John Knox Press, 179 pages, $12.95
Six essays, originally a lecture series at Louisville Presbyterian Theological Seminary, explore contemporary Presbyterianism as representative of mainline Protestantism. Numerical decline, spiritual malaise, marginality, and internal conflict are problems generally addressed by the first four of these essays. The most useful is the first, by Princeton Sociologist Robert Wuthnow, which continues (and to some extent repeats) the helpful critique of contemporary American religion presented in Wuthnow’s two books. The Restructuring of American Religion and The Struggle for America’s Soul. He sees Presbyterianism’s internal polarization as its most critical problem. Edward Farley urges the Presbyterian Church to be true to its tradition of “critical modernism,” (thus supporting one side of the polarization with which Wuthnow deals). Barbara Wheeler analyzes research on congregations (of which she believes more is needed) and finds in it no clear guidance as to a way out of the malaise, Benton Johnson points to the erosion of spiritual discipline and practice within the denomination, as symbolized by the decline of Sabbath observance. The final two essays do not address the predicament of the denomination as such, but offer black and feminist perspectives. Gayraud Wilmore gives a history of Black Presbyterianism, and Barbara Zikmund discusses ordination in terms of the influence of women clergy. The book has the weakness of any collection of essays loosely tied together by a general theme, without a significant attempt by the editors to integrate them. No clear understanding of what the “Presbyterian predicament” is, or how it might be addressed, emerges. However, this is the first of a projected seven-volume series on “The Presbyterian Presence: The Twentieth-Century Experience,” expected to grow out of a major study of the Presbyterian Church (USA) funded by the Lilly Endowment and conducted by Louisville Theological Seminary. As other volumes come along a clearer picture may begin to take shape.
Liberalism and the Moral Life
edited by Nancy L. Rosenblum
Harvard, 302 pages, $32.50
Twelve essays reacting to Michael Sandel’s brilliant critique of liberalism and the limits of justice. Alasdair MacIntyre, Roberto Unger, Robert Nozick, and others also come in for their knocks. Stephen Holmes of the University of Chicago comes pretty close to saying they’re all a bunch of fascists who refuse to own up to their intellectual ancestry. Of genuine value, by contrast, is Charles Taylor’s argument that the liberalism of individual rights and indifference to the common good is, in largest part, a peculiar and relatively recent American phenomenon that by no means exhausts the possibilities of liberal democracy in the contemporary world.
Beliefs, Values, and Policies: Conviction Politics in a Secular Age
by Duncan B. Forrester
Oxford, 110 pages, $12.95
Addressing the problem of “the naked public square,” a professor of Christian ethics at the University of Edinburgh tests a number of proposals and comes down, tentatively, on the side of R. H. Tawney and Alasdair MacIntyre who, he believes, suggest a Christian way of advancing social justice without abandoning convictions about transcendent truth.
Philosopher of Revelation: The Life and Thought of S. L. Steinheim
by Joshua O. Haberman
Jewish Publication Society. 332 pp. $29.95
Salomon Ludwig Steinheim, like Franz Rosenzweig a century later, wrestled with conversion to Christianity and then returned to Judaism to become one of its most profound exponents. This is an annotated translation of the first volume of his Revelation According to the Doctrine of Judaism, with excerpts from the remaining three volumes. Christian readers, too, might relish Steinheim’s spirited dissection of Schleiermacher and his insistence that revelation is essential both to God’s freedom and ours.
Democracy and Its Critics
by Robert A. Dahl
Yale, 397 pages, $29.95
Sterling Professor of Political Science Emeritus at Yale, Dahl is among the most academically respected students of democratic theory and practice. Although written before the dramatic changes of 1989, this volume offers a relatively sanguine view of democracy’s future. In Dahl’s view, the progress of history is from democracy in the city state, to the nation state, to some form of transnational governance. Preoccupied with the Greek origins of democracy, Dahl rather thoroughly ignores the seventeenth and eighteenth century religious foundations of modem democracy in England and America.
Mill and Liberalism
by Maurice Cowling
Cambridge, 207 pages, $14.95 paper
The second edition of a 1963 book that, in some circles, is venerated. The main text is unchanged, but Cowling, a Fellow of Peterhouse, Cambridge, offers a new forty-seven-page rollicking account of British intellectual and journalistic life during the Thatcher years. It is laced with considerable wit, and only as much venom as is absolutely necessary. The book itself is a thoroughly entertaining, and for the most part convincing, expose of the “higher liberalism” fathered by among the most morally pretentious of thinkers, John Stuart Mill. It is Cowling’s belief that Mill’s anti-Christian animus shaped his improbable ambition to replace the church’s moral authority with his bourgeois version of “critical reason.” Mill and Liberalism is required reading for anyone who wants to understand what went wrong with certain varieties of liberalism at their intellectual root.
The Examined Life: Philosophical Meditations
by Robert Nozick
Simon and Schuster, 303 pages, $21.95
Ponderings by the famed Harvard philosopher on subjects as various as life, death, happiness, emotions, sex, and why people ponder such things. Written during amply funded periods of R&R in Mediterranean climes, the book contains occasional flashes of originality. Fans of Mr. Nozick might wish to wait for his next book, written, one hopes, in more bracing New England. (At least more bracing for rare minds such as his.)
In Gods We Trust: New Patterns of Religious Pluralism in America
edited by Thomas Robbins and Dick Anthony
Transaction, 544 pages, $22.95
A big and fairly inclusive reader, with perhaps excessive attention given to the religiously exotic and marginal. But then, the subject is pluralism, understood as variety. The editors’ concluding essay is in essential agreement with the argument offered by Robert Bellah, et al., in Habits of the Heart.
Paul: Saint of the Inner City
by Joseph P. Fitzpatrick
Paulist Press, 109 pages, $5.95
Fitzpatrick, now emeritus at Fordham, did pioneering sociological work on the migration of Hispanics to northern cities. The present edifying discourse relates the problems of our inner cities to the ministry of Paul the Apostle. In a time when Catholic and oldline Protestant churches are withdrawing from ministry among the urban poor, this little book might occasion some salutary soul-searching.
Tracking the Maze
by Clark H. Pinnock
Harper & Row, 227 pages, $24.95
The subtitle pretty well says it: “Finding Our Way Through Modern Theology From an Evangelical Perspective.” Pinnock’s is an ambitious project that attempts to work out a typology of theological (and philosophical) methods of the modern period, in search of a believable postmodernity. Aware that evangelicalism is something of a “theological ghetto,” Pinnock invites other evangelicals to follow him into the maze. Whether he finds his way out is uncertain. If not, however, he is lost in intelligent company.
The Nature of Politics
by Roger D. Masters
Yale, 298 pages, $25
An important work by a professor of government at Dartmouth who wants to combat nihilism by grounding politics in evolutionary biology (“biopolitics”). Masters, a student of Leo Strauss, makes an elegant naturalistic case that he hopes is not incompatible with biblical religion. Whatever doubts they may have about his naturalism, Christian and Jewish proponents of various “natural law” approaches may find support and provocation in Masters’ suggestion that moral judgment has its basis in the scientifically discernible “natural” ends of man.
Who Lives? Who Dies? Ethical Criteria in Patient Selection
by John F. Kilner
Yale, 359 pages, $29.95
A professor of medical ethics with a vast command of the literature leads us, once again, into the dilemma-plagued decision making about the allocation of scarce medical resources. Kilner clearly rejects some proposed criteria, such as the social utility of the patient. And he is certainly right in saying that ethical dilemmas in medical choice are increasing. He perhaps puts too much weight on factors of technology, however, slighting questions of cultural and personal understandings of virtue that might curb the medical avariciousness of contemporaries who turn their lives into immortality projects that are inevitably and quite precisely dead-ended.
The Reign of Conscience: Individual, Church, and State in Lord Acton’s History of Liberty
by John Nurser
Garland, 220 pages, $42
The author, currently Dean of Lincoln Cathedral, has worked through thousands of note cards left by Acton at his death in 1902, and from them has constructed the main themes and outline of the History of Liberty that Acton never got around to writing. In Nurser’s view, Acton’s understanding of Providence and progress in history, culminating in the American constitutional order, reflected a firmly grounded liberalism that would not have been discredited by 1914-1918 and subsequent events. As to Acton’s complex and often contentious relationship to the Roman Catholic Church, Nurser suggests that Lord Acton would have been greatly pleased by his vindication at the Second Vatican Council. While eminently debatable, Nurser’s judgments are persuasively presented, and the sources he displays are always intriguing. Regrettably, the price of the book will limit it to major libraries and the more devoted of Acton mavens.
Foundations of Social Theory
by James S. Coleman
Harvard, 993 pages, $39.50
Those familiar with Coleman chiefly through his important work in practical fields may not be prepared for this massive theoretical exercise. Indeed, it is a work for specialists. The publisher says it may be the most important project in social theory since Talcott Parsons’ Structure of Social Action in 1936. Perhaps so, but the book also reflects some of the reasons why the credit of sociology has taken such a deep dive in recent years. Foundations is dismally reductionistic. Truth, justice, religion, rights”all are not simply socially constructed but determined and exhaustively explained by social dynamics. The author seems to be quite untouched by the alternative constructions of reality advanced in the last several decades in philosophy, political science, and even in sociology. If Foundations is to be believed, economics is, by comparison with sociology, the convivial science.
The Catholic Myth: The Behavior and Beliefs of American Catholics
by Andrew Greeley
Scribners, 322 pages, $21.95
Andrew Greeley has often written that he considers it a compliment to be called a loud-mouthed Irish priest. By that criterion he is here in top form. In a mix of anger and resentment, he rails against the hierarchy of the Roman Catholic Church, most of whom he thinks are self-serving fools, and reiterates his support for “communal Catholics” who like being Catholic even though they have long since decided, as he puts it, “to hell with the leadership.” Greeley’s discovery of the role of religious loyalty in forming identity, he “candidly” tells the reader, would have won for him the Nobel Prize in sociology, were there such a prize. The key to understanding Catholics, he says, is poetic or imaginative religious behavior, rather than doctrine or ethics. Greeley’s religious poetry is highly erotic, which may be off-putting to readers who cannot manage to sustain his level of excitement about the fact that the flesh in which God became incarnate included genitalia. As an appendix, he reprints an article arguing that Catholicism favors a “third way” between capitalism and socialism. It is an old argument that has little to do with the rest of the book, and that today holds slight interest for people who give more careful attention to Catholic social teaching, but apparently Father Greeley feels some purpose is served in having the article between hard covers. The Catholic Myth is vintage Greeley and will no doubt be enjoyed by aficionados of his brand of calculated outrageousness.
Utopia against the Family: The Problems and Politics of the American Family
by Bryce J. Christensen
Ignatius, 146 pages, $11.95
A spirited polemic against “profamily” government programs promoted by people who are, says Christensen, convinced that the family is an anachronistic and oppressive institution. The argument is that utopianisms of all varieties reject the limits and satisfactions inherent in faithful marriage and the raising of children. Christensen is especially effective in his critique of Swedish models of family policy, and in analyzing the reasons for a “birth dearth” that has brought many Western nations to a point below zero population growth.
Private Virtue & Public Policy: Catholic Thought and National Life
edited by James Finn
Transaction, 141 pages, $29.95
Most of these essays refuse to accept the claim that “economic justice” is an oxymoron. The writers examine, with varying degrees of appreciation, the efforts of the American bishops to clarify Catholic teaching. Among the essayists are William E. Simon, Michael Novak, and James Q. Wilson. Editor Finn provides a concluding essay titled, “Does It Matter What the Bishops Said?” He very convincingly answers in the affirmative. This collection belongs in the libraries of those who attend to Christian social teaching in our time.
Augustus to Constantine: The Rise and Triumph of Christianity in the Roman World
by Robert M. Grant
Harper & Row, 334 pages, $12.95
A most welcome reprint of a 1970 study that has everything to do with today’s disputes about Christianity in the public arena. Grant masterfully recounts Christian confusions and ambitions regarding the connections between spiritual and temporal realms. Contemporary readers will be struck by the similarities between second-century gnosticism and today’s “consciousness raising” as found, for instance, in radical feminism. Grant is particularly informative on the painful ambiguities of Christian attitudes toward Jews and Judaism in the early church. Augustus to Constantine is an important work that belongs in any basic collection of books on Christian history.
Articles of Faith, Articles of Peace: The Religious Liberty Clauses and the American Public Philosophy
edited by James Davison Hunter and Os Guinness
Brookings, 168 pages, $22.95
In 1988 the Williamsburg Charter was unveiled, and it has become something of a point of reference in discussions about religion and the First Amendment. The Charter was drafted by veterans of church-state arguments, including William Bentley Ball, Dean Keliey, and Richard John Neuhaus. The present book contains selected contributions from a conference on the Charter at the University of Virginia. Of special interest are Michael Sandel’s “Freedom of Conscience or Freedom of Choice?” and Peter Berger’s deliciously whimsical reflection on religion and law in America.
The Fundamentalist Phenomenon
edited by Norman J. Cohen
Eerdmans, 266 pages, $14.95
An eminently useful collection of fifteen essays on Protestant Fundamentalism, issuing from a series of conferences sponsored by Hebrew Union College of New York City. Most of the essays attend chiefly to the political and social significance of Fundamentalism in American life. Although the volume describes itself as “a view from within/a response from without,” we have here non-Fundamentalist discussions of the “phenomenon,” and they range from the polemically hostile to the critically sympathetic. Among the writers are Jaroslav Pelikan, Clark Pinnock, James Davison Hunter, George Marsden, James Reichley, Leon Wieseltier, and Richard John Neuhaus.
The Moral Dimension: Toward a New Economics
by Amitai Etzioni
Free Press, 314 pages, $24.95
Etzioni of George Washington University offers stringent criticisms of neoclassical economists who assume that the market is a force that goes by itself. Economics operates within a social and moral “capsule,” and the author contends for a deontological ethics of a Kantian variety that puts the market into a more full-orbed account of human relationships, and all for the sake of the market itself. It is not evident that Etzioni has proposed a “new economics,” but there are important questions raised and some readers will find them worth working through the frequently novel and jarring jargon. Readers concerned with questions of public philosophy will likely find least satisfying the book’s scant treatment of the democratic sources of moral judgment, notably religion.
Confessor between East and West: A Portrait of Ukrainian Cardinal Joseph Slipyj
by Jaroslav Pelikan
Eerdmans, 249 pages, $29.95
Yale’s distinguished church historian is a Lutheran who describes himself as orthodox and catholic without being Orthodox or Catholic. He is also Slavic, and that no doubt has everything to do with this scholarly labor of love. Cardinal Slipyj (1892-1984) early became the spiritual leader of Ukrainian Catholics and was imprisoned by the Nazis, then spent eighteen years in the Soviet gulag. Upon his release in 1963 he was forced to spend the rest of his time in Rome, where he labored tirelessly to alert the West to Communist oppression and to work for the full unity of Christian West and Christian East. Haply (or providentially), the book appears at a time of promising developments for the church in the Ukraine, developments that seemed highly improbable when Slipyj died in 1984.